Astell & Kern XB10 Bluetooth review

No headphone jack? No problem. Everything sounds superb with Astell & Kern's XB10

With gorgeous sound in an ultra-portable package, Astell & Kern’s XB10 Bluetooth amp is the best way to make your wired headphones wireless.
With gorgeous sound in an ultra-portable package, Astell & Kern’s XB10 Bluetooth amp is the best way to make your wired headphones wireless.
With gorgeous sound in an ultra-portable package, Astell & Kern’s XB10 Bluetooth amp is the best way to make your wired headphones wireless.

Highs

  • Noticeably widens and sharpens soundstage
  • Tightens and focuses bass response
  • Light, extremely portable design
  • Beautiful fit and finish

Lows

  • Limited battery life of 5 hours

As more mobile device manufacturers mull over ditching headphone jacks entirely, fans of high-quality sound find them selves increasingly in need of ways to keep using their favorite pair of wired headphones. That’s where high-end audio company Astell & Kern’s XB10 comes in.

The portable headphone amp and digital-to-analog converter (DAC) connects any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone, tablet, or computer to wired headphones using high quality components as well as advanced digital technologies like aptX HD, designed to reproduce sound comparable to hi-res quality with compatible devices. In other words, this little puck is ready to play with the big boys, and it’s got the performance chops to prove it.

Light, beautifully designed, and capable of gorgeous mobile sound, the XB10 is the best portable Bluetooth-to-headphone interface we’ve heard.

Out of the box

The XB10 comes packaged in a small cylindrical box, packing a black micro USB cable for charging, and a comically tiny manual (seriously, the thing is the size of a box of matches with ant-sized print).

Astell & Kern XB10
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

In the bottom of the box, there’s a small clip that can be attached to the back of the device and hooked to shirts, jean pockets, or anywhere else you want it to hang while listening on the go.

Features and design

At the exterior, the XB10’s futuristic dimensions looks something like an air hockey puck as envisioned by Michael Bay. The beveled edge along its equator is offset by jagged edges in a cross shape along the top – an Astell & Kern signature that can be found on many of the company’s other audio products.

Once you start listening through the XB10, you won’t want to go back to your phone alone.

But even with that flashy design cue, the XB10 is small and discrete, so much so that we often feared we’d lose track of it in a deep backpack pocket. It’s also extremely light, but the hard plastic does feel very sturdy and could almost pass as aluminum if it had been made to look brushed.

In keeping with the tenets of good design, the jagged edges that cross the XB10’s top are also functional, separating four rocker-switches including volume up and down buttons on the right side, and Bluetooth pairing and play/pause buttons on the left. Relegated to the side bevel are a song skip button, a micro USB charging port, a small LED to indicate power and pairing, and a small pinhole microphone for phone calls. Also at the side are two audio outputs, including a balanced 2.5mm port and unbalanced 3.5mm port. A locking on/off switch completes the setup.

Astell & Kern XB10
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

One quibble to note about the controls: While the rocker switches on top offer easy access, they’re easy to bump on the fly. Luckily, the lock switch shuts down all the controls, so you’ll either want to use that, or utilize the included clip when out and about. It took us awhile to figure that one out, actually, due to the ridiculously tiny manual

In fact, our only real gripe is battery life: Astell & Kern only equipped the XB10 with enough juice to last about 5 hours. While we rarely listen to more than 5 hours of music at a time on the go, the device needs a recharge fairly often. It makes sense given how small the unit is, but we actually wouldn’t mind a slightly larger profile if it meant getting a few more hours of listening time for long flights or road trips.

Setup

Pairing with the XB10 is extremely easy. Simply turn on the device and press the pairing button, at which point the LED on the side will begin flashing. From there, just look for the XB10 in your device’s Bluetooth menu and select it. Once done, the unit quickly reconnects to previously-paired devices upon power-up.

Audio performance

Our audio performance section comes with a simple warning: Once you start listening to music through the XB10, you won’t want to go back to your phone on its own – be it wired or wireless connection. The XB10 improves the overall sound quality of every musical genre significantly when compared to the paltry components in the vast majority of flagship phones (iPhone definitely included).

The ramp up in clarity over virtually any standard smartphone is considerable, but it’s only enhanced when listening through an aptX-enabled device like the Moto X Pure Edition (Apple products do not currently support aptX). In addition, the XB10 improves the depth of the soundstage and the focus of the instrumentation, with each instrument in each song occupying a more specific location in the mix.

Astell & Kern’s XB10 headphone amp/DAC takes your audio quality to the next level.

The expansive stereo mixes on Elton John’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, for example, were vastly improved when heard through the XB10 versus our phone alone — via Bluetooth or 3.5mm connection. Hard-panned (far left and far right) hand drums and percussion lean wide on the far edges of the mix, but remain clear and punchy, and Elton’s voice gains a warmer tone that makes each lyric pop.

Bass tones are also better separated from the rest of the sound profile with the XB10, with the sub-bass response on Run The Jewels’ Talk To Me sounding warmer and more rounded, without ever overpowering the other musical elements.

Heck, even simple two-track recordings like Jeff Buckley’s classic version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah impress with newfound definition, showcasing a brighter touch to the guitar’s upper strings and the same focused mid-range push in the vocals we heard when listening to Elton John. The added shimmer in the treble and warmth in the midrange are especially apparent at high volumes, but low-volume listeners will still hear noticeable improvement in sound quality.

Speaking of which, volume will also never be an issue. Output through the 3.5mm unbalanced output is equivalent to even the loudest built-in DACs on most smartphones, and the XB10 puts out even more signal when using the 2.5mm balanced output. In terms of distance, the advertised 33 feet of wireless range was right on the money, allowing us a solid amount of mobility.

Our Take

While any number of Bluetooth receivers can connect your wired headphones to your phone over Bluetooth, Astell & Kern’s XB10 headphone amp/DAC takes your audio quality to the next level. If you own (or want to own) the latest iPhone, and sound quality is paramount, the XB10 is easily the best-sounding way to cut the cord of your go-to cans. And while it’s designed with jack-less phones in mind, the XB10 provides an impressive amount of audio definition to any Bluetooth-enabled source device

Is there a better alternative?

The XB10 is a niche device, as most wireless headphone adapters out there are designed with functionality and volume level in mind, rather than sound quality. That said, if the XB10’s $180 retail price is too much to swallow, Creative’s SoundBlaster E3 and Audio Technica’s PHA50 are the closest you’ll find on the market in terms of features and quality, available for about half the cost.

How long will it last?

Astell & Kern has a solid history as a manufacturer of high-quality audio devices, and though it’s made of plastic rather than aluminum, we see no reason the XB10 should be an exception. Provided it is treated properly, the device should be able to withstand several years of heavy use.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’re a lover of high-quality audio and own an iPhone 7 or other jack-free audio device — or if you simply want the freedom of movement that Bluetooth provides — the XB10 is the best way to make your wired headphones wireless.

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